The big questions were already there two years ago, when Tom Dumoulin was training on Mount Teide in preparation for the 2019 season. On a car ride back to the Parador Hotel with Team Sunweb coach Brian Stephens, Dumoulin grappled with the biggest of them all: why do it?
"We were actually talking about this topic: why do you completely suffer through it? It's not easy, because you have to find new ways of smashing yourself and find new places of pain, and why do you do that?" Dumoulin told Procycling on that February afternoon, as dusk fell gently over the mountainside.
"I think I just like the journey, and I think any rider likes that journey. Brian also said, 'if your only ambition in your cycling career is to win the Tour de France, then what are you going to do if you win the Tour de France?' Is that it, do you stop cycling? So somehow there is some sort of motivation outside the result, and that is everything that comes with it on the bike, like being free. I think that’s it."
A crash at that year’s Giro d’Italia meant there would be no results of note for Dumoulin that season, while an early illness and the interruption for the pandemic turned the 2020 campaign, his first at Jumbo-Visma, into an ordeal. Although he rode prominently at the Tour de France in support of Primož Roglič, placing seventh overall in the process, his bearing was that of a man who was no longer enjoying the journey. He certainly no longer felt free.
Twelve months ago, just a day after Jumbo-Visma had presented their objectives for the 2021 season, Dumoulin pressed pause on his career, citing burnout, and he negotiated unpaid leave of indeterminate length from his employers. Last winter, it was altogether uncertain that he would ever race again, but the lure of a tilt at the Olympic Games time trial drew him back to the bike as the days grew longer.
Even then, there lingered a sense that Dumoulin’s silver medal in Tokyo and his fourth Dutch time trial title might serve as a coda to his career rather than a reboot. At some point later in the summer, however, Dumoulin began to warm once again to the idea of testing himself in a three-week race and he confirmed as much on Tuesday, when he announced that he would target the general classification at this year’s Giro d'Italia.
"I came back because I love riding my bike, but that is something that I don’t have to be a professional to do. If I love riding my bike, I can also quit as a professional and still ride my bike whenever I want and as long as I want," Dumoulin told reporters following Jumbo-Visma’s team presentation.
"But as long as I’m a professional, the thing I also really enjoy and that drives me is to get the best out of myself, to aim for the highest. I only have a few years left in the peloton and I don’t want to look back and think, 'ah, I didn’t get everything out of it'."
Even though there is a meagre 26km of time trialling on the route of the 2022 Giro, the Corsa Rosa seems a most fitting place for Dumoulin to return to the role of the Grand Tour contender. He wore pink there in 2016, won the race overall in 2017 and delivered arguably his strongest set of climbing displays there when he placed second overall behind Chris Froome in 2018.
Even in 2019, when sponsor demands suggested that Dumoulin would focus on the Tour de France, he brokered another return to Italy. And so, when he hinted this winter that he would return to Grand Tours in 2022, it was immediately apparent that he was referring to the Giro, where he will lead a Jumbo-Visma team that also includes Tobias Foss, ninth overall last year.
"I wanted to go to the Giro because of my feelings towards the race and towards the country," he said.
"We looked at the options of doing the Tour or the Giro. In the Tour, we have already a lot of GC riders in our team. For me, it’s a better choice this year to go to the Giro, also because I love the race. I’m aiming for GC again. It’s been a few years since I did GC in a Grand Tour but I think I still have it in me. It’s going to be 21 days full gas.
"Obviously I hoped for more TT kilometres, but I’m very confident also in my climbing skills and my skills on the shorter, explosive climbs, so it’s not that I cannot do GC without a lot of time trial kilometres."
When a past winner of the Giro says he is aiming for GC, the inference is that he is targeting overall victory but, as Dumoulin put it two years ago, there is a motivation beyond the result. The process, which morphed into something of a torment in 2020, is back to being something closer to a pleasure, though Dumoulin downplayed the idea that the journey towards this Giro was somehow more significant than those that had gone before.
"I wouldn’t say this is more important, but in my break I also realised that it’s something very special, that I’m capable of doing GC," Dumoulin said.
"It’s something that only a few riders are capable of, and I’m one of them. And that’s also a big journey or a big story that I’m writing for myself, something that I can look back on, so that’s why I really want to continue that journey."
In stepping off the carousel last year, Dumoulin surely performed his sport some service, with his hiatus highlighting the ever more extreme mental and physical demands top-level cycling places upon riders. In an interview with AD in December, however, Dumoulin gently deflated the notion that his candid admission of burnout might have inspired people beyond cycling.
"I really like cycling again, but I have very little need to be an example for others," he explained.
On Tuesday, he noted that his break from cycling was a physical necessity as much as a psychological one, and he has seen the benefits of the lay-off since his return.
"It made a world of difference when I took my break. I was not only mentally struggling with a few issues, that I didn’t know if I wanted to be a cyclist anymore or whatever, but also physically, I was just drained and also overtrained," he said.
"My blood values were really bad so I definitely also needed a physical break from cycling. That definitely helped me to be healthy again and strong and to be able to recover after training. For quite a while before my break, that wasn’t the case anymore. I didn’t really recover after intensive training or racing."
Dumoulin’s 2022 racing programme is a carefully curated one, interspersing some of the usual waystations of a Giro contender – namely the UAE Tour, the Volta a Catalunya and an April altitude camp – with two one-day races that cater rather more for enjoyment. The 31-year-old will return to Strade Bianche, where he placed fifth in 2017, and to his home event, the Amstel Gold Race.
"We also have a plan for the second half of the season but it’s not in concrete yet," Dumoulin said, though he confirmed that he would not ride the Tour de France, where Primož Roglič will be flanked by Jonas Vingegaard, Steven Kruijswijk, Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert.
While Dumoulin will not share the stage with Roglič and Van Aert at the Tour in 2022, he will share a trainer with them. After working with Mathieu Heijboer at the start of his Jumbo-Visma tenure and with Louis Delahaije ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, Dumoulin is now coached by Marc Lamberts.
"I had a very good relationship with Mathieu, so it’s not that I’m looking for a better relationship with a trainer, just a new impulse," Dumoulin said. "There’s some slight changes but nothing major. I’m working with [Lamberts] since October and until now, we have a really nice connection and I love working with him."
Although Dumoulin returns to familiar terrain in May, his return to the Giro is also a step into the unknown. Since he placed on the podium of both the Giro and Tour in 2018, he has completed just one Grand Tour, the 2020 Tour, and the lie of the land in stage racing has changed considerably across that period.
When it was put to Dumoulin that the time away from Grand Tours might ultimately extend his career, he preferred to focus on the journey in hand in the here and now.
"I’m just racing as long as I like it and as long as I feel the drive to aim for the highest. As for how long that will be, I don’t know. I don’t know," he said.
"Maybe one year, maybe 10 years. I don’t know."
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